Talking ‘bout My Generation—and Yours, and Yours, and Yours….

By Anne Stuart

For the first time, many businesses now have workforces in which recent college graduates work side by side with colleagues who are 25, 35 or even 45 to 50 years older. As a result, they’re dealing with workers who aren’t just from different age groups--they’re from four distinct generations, each with different values, outlooks and work styles.

Exact definitions vary, but demographic researchers generally divide today’s employee generations along these lines:

  •  Traditionalists: Those born before 1946. They’re now 62 and older; they’re sometimes called “builders” or “veterans.” Share of today’s workforce: about 10 percent and dwindling.
  •  Baby Boomers: Those born during the post-World War II “baby boom” from 1946 to about 1964. They’re now about 44 to 61 years old. Share of today’s workforce: about 45 percent.
  •  Gen X-ers: Those born between about 1965 and 1980, although some demographers stretch the boundaries several years in either direction. Using the standard definition, they’re now roughly 28 to 43 years old. Share of today’s workforce: about 30 percent.
  •  Gen Y-ers: Generally, those born between 1981 and the mid- to late 1990s. Those in the professional workforce are in their 20s; they’re sometimes also called “Gen Next” or “Millennials.” Share of today’s workforce: about 15 percent, growing annually.

Of course, individual beliefs and behaviors vary widely within any group, but research and anecdotal evidence reveal traits common to each generation in the business world.

Traditionalists, especially those in management or executive positions, tend to remain loyal to a single occupation and, often, a single employer. They often respect hierarchy and authority and expect others to do so as well.

Baby Boomers often started out as careerists or even “workaholics,” focusing more on their jobs than on their personal lives. Many still place high value on power and prestige, but a growing number now seek better work-life balance; some are scaling back or changing careers at midlife to make that happen.

Gen X-ers are often entrepreneurial and open to change (one consultant has estimated that the average Gen X-er goes through five or six jobs before age 30); they tend to value independence and flexibility in work situations.

And while Gen Y is still emerging, it’s clearly the most technologically savvy group yet; its members--almost literally born networkers--tend to collaborate well but may also be highly competitive about their careers.

So how can companies hire the best employees of any generation? The answers have literally filled books. But following are some tried-and-true approaches that companies may want to adopt.

Commitment to customized career paths: Young workers may be reassured to know that their chances for advancement will be based on individual performance rather than following a standard track or spending a pre-determined (and often arbitrary) amount of time in a particular job.

Gen X-ers and younger Baby Boomers may appreciate being able to temporarily cut back on hours or travel while raising young children, ramping back up later without loss of seniority or prestige. And older employees may welcome opportunities that make full use of their skills and experience but don’t require the 60- or 70-hour work weeks they logged earlier in their careers.

Opportunities to learn: If there’s one thing the three younger generations share, it’s a thirst for knowledge. Boomers often go back to school throughout their careers; research indicates that Gen X and Gen Y both like to learn. All three age groups are likely to view on-the-job training or tuition reimbursement for continuing education or degree programs as particularly attractive benefits.

Intergenerational relationship-building: One-to-one mentoring and coaching programs can help junior and senior employees work with and learn from each other. But mentoring experts warn that such programs only work if both parties participate voluntarily, set goals and meet regularly to further the younger person’s career. Education sometimes starts from the other end of the spectrum, too: Some organizations encourage their technically sophisticated young staffers to lead sessions to help everyone else come up to speed on important software programs.

Openness to new work options: Many employers now realize that attracting and keeping the best employees may mean overhauling long-established assumptions about how, when and where people work. They’ve gone beyond the full-time, nine-to-five, five-days-a-week work world to provide alternatives such as flextime, telecommuting or job-sharing. Some develop personalized work schedules on a case-by-case basis--for instance, letting a Gen Y employee work some evenings while attending grad-school classes, accommodating a Gen X mother who wants to arrive and leave two hours earlier than most colleagues because of a child’s school schedule and allowing a Baby Boomer to work part-time while caring for an elderly parent.

Emphasis on work-life balance: Many companies that routinely win honors such as inclusion on Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list do so because they’ve demonstrated that they care about their people as people--not just as employees. For example, SAS Inc., a Cary, N.C.-based software company that’s in Fortune’s Hall of Fame, offers on-site child care, an eldercare referral program, a massive fitness center and other benefits designed to enhance employees’ personal lives as well as their professional ones.

While professionals of different ages clearly think and work in different ways, they’ve got many similarities as well. Sirota Survey Intelligence, an organizational research firm with U.S. headquarters in Purchase, N.Y., has conducted thousands of employee surveys since 1972. According to founder David Sirota, what workers want has changed little over the years. Regardless of age, most cite the same top job-related priorities: pride in their work, positive relationships with co-workers and fair treatment.

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